I grew up on anime. In particular, like every teenager in Asia, I grew up watching, reading and in my case, drawing Dragonball Z. It was easily the most popular series in its time (the equivalent title nowadays would be Naruto). So when I found out there was going to be a live action movie, I was pretty terrified. As it turns out, I was rightfully so. You can see the casting in the above poster.

I’m not particularly active in the local Asian (North) American scene nor do I keep up much with local or national issues related to Asian Americans. But one pet peeve of mine has always been the role of Asians in Hollywood.

In the movie 21 based on the novel “Bringing Down the House” which, in turn, was based on a true story from MIT, the main character was converted from Asian to Caucasian. What was particularly irksome about this casting was that the story clearly states that most members of the blackjack team were minorities. In fact, they needed to be minorities because it was much more convincing for minorities to act like rich heirs playing their parents’ money at the high stakes tables.

The MIT team thrived by choosing BPs [Big Players] who fit the casino mold of the young, foolish, and wealthy. Primarily nonwhite, either Asian or Middle Eastern, these were the kids the casinos were accustomed to seeing bet a thousand bucks a hand.

I vented about that so much that my friend Ernie wrote about it on his group blog, 8 Asians.

Now, they can’t even seem to feel comfortable casting an Asian as a lead on a Japanese animation adaptation about martial arts.

In this regard, I am frequently disappointed about the role of Asians in North America and sometimes wonder if more needs to be done. More disturbing than the answer to questions like, “will we ever see an Asian play a lead role in a movie without having to play an Asian?”, “when will we see an Asian winning an Academy Award for Best Actor or Actress?” or “how long before an Asian President seems likely?” is how infrequently these questions ever seem to be asked.

Stupid, minor, seemingly inconsequential decisions like this casting serve to remind me how narrow minded mainstream Hollywood and its audience can still be—and make me wonder how far out I can extrapolate that generalization.


  1. Brian Schulman · 26 Jan 09

    I've already accepted that all Hollywood can produce is garbage, but this white-washing shit is infuriating. I dread the Oldboy remake actually getting to production.

  2. kevnull · 26 Jan 09

    There's an Oldboy remake? Nooooooooo.

    Even “The Departed” was frustrating. It was good but lacked so many elements that the original movie had.

  3. heather gold · 21 Feb 09

    fwiw, I used to work at New Line years ago and got a pretty clear view of how this happens. I was very political and drawn to NL in part because it made films with African-American actors and storytellers.

    I was told, at the time, that the focus groups showed that Latino/a people didn't prefer to see Latino/a people in films, therefor it wasn't necessary to cast them. This was around the time NL was picketed by people protesting the casting of a white actor as Frida Kahlo.

    In lead roles, the whitewashing is attributed to tying the film to a “name” meaning someone who can open a film. The film financial projections are run based, in part of that actor's BO track record. If the actor is not a feature “name” (ie. already proven) that makes it highly unlikely they'll be cast.

    In character roles, I don't think you can whitewash even the racism of it. The only thing i can think of is that whomever's got final casting decisions (generally white dudes) believes he's selling to other people like himself and so only picks what he believes will work.

    Check out Jennifer Yu's Ping Pong Playa…I have an interview with her I'll post soon on heathergold.com/show

    I think there's slightly more progress being made on TV now Shonda Rhimes clearly puts a priority on diverse casting. And, of course we have the Intertubes where anyone can make and distribute anything they want: including Asian male leads and smart women who take action .

  4. kevnull · 21 Feb 09

    Wow, thanks for the detailed response, Heather. Focus groups are, in my opinion, rarely that useful at finding out useful information because it's so easy to interpret the data to mean what one wants it to. There's a big difference between not having a preference for Latino/a and translating that to having a preference for Caucasian actors.

    I've seen Ping Pong Playa and loved it.

    In addition, I happened to watch Sunshine yesterday and really was surprised/impressed that it featured 3 Asians in a cast of 8 and none of them were cast as character roles.

  5. João Gonçalves aka uterrorista · 15 Jun 09

    Funny. I remembered that i also had the hobby to draw it.
    But i draw faster than the 1425425 days that ONE fight lasted.. lol